Google’s Mobile Woes: The Search Bar

With the exception of transactions, discovery is one of the best aspects of any business to get into. While both discovery and transaction are intermediary plays, the former tends to push much more volumes compared to the latter. Perfect examples of such companies are Paypal (transactions) and Google (discovery), with Paypal representing the transaction piece, while Google represents the discovery piece when it comes to information.

It is always interesting to watch people use a computer, more for the manner in which even really tuned-in folks use Google as a quasi-DNS service. Vast majority of users I have observed refuse to use the address bar in the browser (leveraging the browser history and suggestions) and will open up a Google search page and enter the domain name there. This places a disproportionate level of power in the hands of Google and it is also one of the reasons why the company is so powerful in the information game.

The problem for Google is that they can’t replicate that one-stop-shop experience on the mobile. Even on an Android phone, searching is not an activity that is done easily. On a computer, a good chunk of time is spent inside a browser. On a mobile, phone very little time is spent in a browser and vertical apps have little reason to include a generic search feature. In fact, it would be considered antithetical to how mobile apps are meant to be used.

It is not that Google has not tried. There is a persistent search bar in most Android devices and then there is the Google Now, but neither lends itself to extensive searching compared to what users do on a desktop. There’s also the mobile version of Chrome, which is an excellent little browser, but it needs some serious firepower (processing & network speeds) to do its magic and the experience is awful on lower-end phones. Considering all of that and looking at the manner in which mobile usage is skyrocketing, eclipsing the laptop/desktop usage growth, mobile search volumes must be considerable concern at Mountain View.

The problem is also that the mobile experience itself not a singular one, but one of groups of silos and is heavily push-oriented. Computers tend to be devices where you have to provide the context for the usage. Compared to mobiles, it is a very pull-driven experience. On the other hand, mobiles tend to push the context at you and the apps are increasingly becoming self-contained silos. It is almost like having a separate browser on the computer for each site you want to visit and almost none of them provide an easy way to search using Google from within the app. And therein lies the problem for Google.

As if none of these issues were not a problem already, the newer markets where mobiles growth is most explosive are where Google has little influence as an intermediary. There are hordes of people in countries like India where, for many, the first experience of the internet is not on a computer, but on a mobile device. And as it happens, this first experience also tends to be a WhatsApp or Facebook, cutting Google entirely out of the equation.

Thus, the problem for Google on mobile is not that vertical search will somehow eclipse horizontal search, but that access to horizontal search is a problem that is not going to go away. Mind you, this is the case when Google practically owns the mobile OS with the largest market share out there. What must be even more worrying for Google is that there is no easy way out of this problem. A user who spends 90% of her/his time on Line/Facebook/WhatsApp, won’t start searching in a browser for something as the context switch (apps than tabs) is inherently more expensive on mobile.

In a way, the tables are getting turned on Google on mobile as the app that gets the user’s attention majority of the time will hold all the cards in this game. Eventually, Google will have to wind up doing deals with the top 20 or more apps in each market to establish the distribution for search on mobile as it successfully has done on the desktop. Which can only mean one thing for app makers — more money in the days to come.

Fix For Call Volume Bug In Moto G

The Moto G has been a fantastic phone so far, except for one small bug which becomes a big irritant. If the phone is used with a headset (wired or bluetooth) and you take it off, the call volume will drop to really low levels, making it hard to hear what is being said on the other side. A reboot usually fixes the problem, but that is not an ideal solution.

The other, simpler, fix is to reduce the volume while in call and then max it. What usually happens in a situation like this is that the user will only try to push the volume to the maximum (which the phone usually is at) than reduce it. To make the fix work, you have to first reduce the volume and then increase it, making it very likely that this is a software issue than a hardware one.

Update: Motorola has released an OTA update for the single SIM GSM version for this with the 174.44.1 update that fixes this bug. There is no word on when it will be rolled out to the other models.

Moto G Review

Having now spent close to a month using the Moto G, I can now sum up the device in one word — fabulous. The device has not been officially launched in India. I was fortunate to have been gifted one by someone living the US and it cost the regular $199 retail there. If they manage to price it under Rs 12,000 (and closer to Rs. 10,000) in India, Motorola could have a winner on its hands.

DSC_0543What I like about the device:

  1. Battery life: I use location services during a major part of the day, which, previously, was a huge drain on Android devices. I am easily getting 24+ hours on a full charge and have never used the battery saver feature.
  2. Android Kitkat: The slight lag (more like a stutter than lag) that used to be there on even the high-end Android devices is gone. Even with 1GB RAM, the transitions are buttery smooth and comparable to iOS.
  3. Nearly-Stock Android: There are a couple of Moto-specific apps in there, but nothing that gets in your way. Rest is pure Android all the way.
  4. Price: You can pick up at least three of these babies at a price that is lesser than a Samsung S4 or an iPhone 5C.
  5. Main camera is pretty decent. Just remember not to shoot with it in low light.

What I don’t like:

  1. No external SD card support. I don’t store much media or click a zillion pics, but I’m already down to 9 GB left on the device.
  2. 1 GB of RAM.
  3. There’s a bug (not sure whether it is software or hardware) that can cause call volume to drop after using a wired or bluetooth headset. Can be fixed with a reboot, but annoying all the same.
  4. USB port is at the bottom of the phone. Never liked that positioning. It is a personal preference, though.

DSC_0552While I really like the device, you do need to keep in mind that I don’t fit the profile of the average smartphone user for the following reasons:

  1. Limited apps usage: I don’t use Facebook, Twitter, G+ and most other social networking apps. I do use Whatsapp and BBM, but they don’t seem to eat up as much battery and processing as the first three.
  2. I don’t game at all on the device. There’s a chess app that I keep for the odd rainy day, but have not used it more than twice or thrice in the past year.
  3. I don’t watch much video on the device other than the odd YouTube clip.
  4. Reading has moved completely to a 7-inch Lava tablet.
  5. My data connection is permanently set to EDGE. I don’t use 3G.

Before I picked up the Moto G, I was using the Micromax A116, which has been a pleasant experience. After using it for almost a year, I’d rooted it and switched to ROM that had thrown away a lot of the unnecessary bits and made it nearly stock Android. Even that phone was giving me a good 24-hours of usage on a single charge. The reason why I wanted to try something else was that the build quality is extremely poor and I doubt it will be able to take another year or two of abuse. There are also little niggles like the problematic GPS lock, lack of a compass and issues with the filesystem at times.

DSC_0548The Moto is my first Google Android phone, which is a route that I have been looking to go down for a while now. The migration assistant provided by Motorola (works over Bluetooth) is quite good and I could switch devices (with data and apps) in a couple of hours. The device does only MTP, so it cannot be mounted as a regular volume on computers. Since I’m on Linux, I use gMTP, which can misbehave a bit at times. The fallback is Bluetooth, which is the disagreeable option when it comes to speed.

Overall, Kitkat seems to have improved how Android handles the idle state. This has resulted in better battery life, for me at least. There are rooting guides and ROMs available for the interested parties, as usual, on XDA, but I’m pretty happy with the way the device is right now. So I don’t see rooting and custom ROMs happening anytime soon. I like my devices to function flawlessly and stay out of the way and the G increasingly looks like a good candidate for that. I’m well past my weekly flashing phase on my phones and a lack of excitement is a welcome change on that front.

Mobile Data Tales From Rural India

One of the rather unfortunate aspects of most of us switching to air travel as a primary mode of getting to places in the country is that we miss out on a lot of what goes on in vast regions of the country that don’t fall into the urban/metro bucket. It is important know what goes on in these regions because unlocking the potential in our billion-plus market has a crucial dependency on producing products and services that make sense for this market. With travel being sparse this year, it was a pleasure to hit the highways once again a week ago and we traversed some rarely-visited parts of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana. It was back-breaking in parts due to the road conditions, but it was, as always, extremely informative.

State of Rural Mobile Data

At least in the regions we covered, mobile data was fairly ubiquitous. The speeds were not much to write home about. Outside urban centers, 3G in India is a joke, so I’ll not even try to address it. Airtel offers up EDGE wherever it can get a signal to you (which is, commendably, almost everywhere), but possible peak throughput on the network is often thwarted by abysmal backhaul. At one place (in Chakrata, Uttarakhand), I was getting 30000 ms pings to Google’s servers. Even 1997-era wired internet in India didn’t have to put up with something as terrible as that.

BSNL provides a service that is mostly there to make up numbers. If you put up a tower on a hill that can cover four villages, you’d be technically saying you cover four villages, but if within those villages you reception is limited to certain areas, what good is that service anyway? Similarly, they do offer data in these remote places, but they are often only GRPS services and not even EDGE. Then there are the longstanding complaints about the generators that power the towers running out of diesel and going offline for big chunks of time.

Low Data Usage In Low End Smart Phones

Between Airtel, Idea and Tata Docomo, you can now travel the country and stay connected with a barely-acceptable level of service. The modern, full-experience web is unusable under 20 Kbps and that is exactly the kind of data quality/speed on offer in a big chunk of the country. If you keep this in mind you can imagine why data services have not taken off at the lower end of the market. The first problem is cost, which I’ll tackle later. The speed and quality is so awful that it won’t be possible to even download apps that are less are 5-10 MB in size.

The small towns work around this problem, to an extent, with “mobile downloading” shops that sideload apps. This will work for the popular apps, but for ones that don’t fall into the popular bucket, you’ll be out of luck. And then there is the case of app discovery, which will be non-existent in an environment like that. Next time you feel like making fun of people using nearly zero data on lower end smartphones, do keep in mind that this is not just because they may be stingy (compared to the high-end smartphone owners), there are also other factors involved in it, which you won’t be aware of unless you travel regularly out of well-connected cities.

Form Factor, UI/UX Comfort

What was heartening to see, though, was that the newer devices have catapulted over a lot of interface-related issues that has hampered PC penetration in these areas. Even now, many decades after its introduction, the PC is still not an easy device to master or interact with. Even experienced users have a degree of discomfort in using a PC, which is hard to explain. Mobile devices, somehow, have seemingly decimated this problem. Even the lousiest tablet interface is picked up easily in no time by a user who otherwise has a lot of trouble using a PC.

Is this because there are fewer things — couple of buttons and a touch screen v/s mouse, keyboard, screen — to coordinate? I’ll leave that to the interface and UX experts to determine, but the change is palpable. It was interesting to see a bunch of soldiers in the small tea shop that we were in had one in their group who was immersed in his 7″ tablet. Compared to previous years, the mobile phone shops also seemed to market and stock a lot more of the 4-5 inch screen phones. Three-years-ago, such a thing was a rarity.

Where Are The Products?

The adoption gap, in terms of time, between rural and urban areas, for smartphones may be reducing, but we still don’t have products that mean much for them. Most of the existing products address either extremes — the really upscale and urban audience or the other extreme pushing alerts about agriculture and similar things — and there is really no product that is available that makes sense for the consumer in those markets. So, we wind up again with a situation where content served up on these phones are basically pushed in through the aforementioned “mobile downloading” centers that has been the perennial revenue leakage fountain in India.

Cost Of Data

Every year we have big numbers that are put out by different agencies about mobile data usage in India, but I have a hard time buying that. A remotely usable data plan in India will cost at least Rs 200 a month, even now. And that’s on EDGE and not even 3G. Considering that there’s still major resistance to a wired data connection at the Rs 500-Rs 600 price point, the Rs. 200 per month cost is non-starter. A wired connection can potentially be reused by members of the family, while mobile data is rarely shared.

Even if you consider two as an average number of devices in a household, it is a Rs. 400 outlay on a fixed cost basis for a family. In a market that is a price sensitive as ours this is not a good thing. Mind you, even at Rs 400 you are not going to get the full speed experience, which means that the user is more likely to try it and not continue because of the poor experience.

The Next Big Mobile Wave

The popular history of the evolution of mobile phones is something on the lines of pre-iPhone and post-iPhone, which is, admittedly, quite a convenient way to look at things. The actual history, though, is a far more nuanced (or, complicated, should you prefer that) affair. The evolution of the mobile phones has gone through various phases like full QWERTY keyboards, colour screens, touch screens, WAP browsers, ability to record and handle videos — the list is endless. Reducing that to a pre and post iPhone world does a lot of injustice to pretty much everyone but Apple.

While Apple deservedly gets a lot of credit for changing our idea of what a smartphone is and how we interact with it, what they don’t get enough credit for how they also changed the way we think of how to use data on a smartphone. If you used a smartphone in the pre-iPhone era the one thing that stood out was that packet data was a second class citizen on the phone. The devices were phone-frist and data access devices second, or later. More than the iOS interface or the physical experience of using an iPhone what is seldom spoken about is this drastic change Apple bought to the market – it was a data access device first, while the phone functionality was a secondary issue.

Always On Data

Data being always-on was a game changer. Phones prior to that would ask you which connection you wanted to use to access packet data and if it should ask you again should the need to use data arise again. Taking data connectivity for granted has changed the way we use these devices. More than faster processors or wider and longer screens, always-on-data is the critical path that has led to the state of affairs today in the mobile domain. Pretty much all of our interactions on a smartphone now takes it for granted that it will be able to access packet data. If it was not for that we’d still be largely relying on text messaging and closed access methods like Blackberry Internet Services.

Momentum, Implications

If you look at the winners and losers in the smartphone game, you will see a clear pattern. The players, like iOS and Android, who adapted quickly to the always-on-data paradigm have moved rapidly ahead of the competition. The ones who failed to adapt that quickly, like Nokia, Palm and RIM, have struggled and continue to struggle. Rapidly growing and evolving markets like smartphones place a premium on momentum and you’ll always find that on the winner’s side. Without momentum, the best of platforms will struggle. And smartphones, being one of those rare objects that potentially can belong to every human being, is a ruthless market where you cannot blink for even a second.

Cycling is a brilliant analogy in this case, especially some of the stages of the Tour de France. The best riders always look to stay in the front group — called the peloton — at all times. This is due to two factors. 1) Momentum: The guys at the front have a much better average momentum through any stage than the rest of the others 2) Safety: In the case of unforeseen eventualities like crashes and crazy headwinds, being at the front gives the riders a better chance of working around problems. Always-on-data was a headwind that was unforeseen by the industry.

The Next Big Wave

Changes in these domains can easily make or break companies depending on whether they ride or miss out on the important waves. Even established big companies can die or go through near-death experiences if they can’t ride these waves quickly. If the last big wave was the switch from seldom-on-data to always-on-data (the one that made Apple), the next big wave in mobile could be anything from a multitude of devices using the same OS to devices that are embedded within/on us than being actual handhelds.

Crystal ball gazing, though, is not an easy task here as products in the domain are not often ruled by simple value choices either to the consumer or to the companies that are involved in the game. There is considerable regulatory interference that stands in the way of services and there’s considerable commoditization at the hardware end. For the skeptics, this is the reason why Apple is very touchy about keeping a cash hoard, the size of which confounds everyone. You don’t take anything in this market for granted and ease off, Nokia is a classic example of that.

 

India Telco Scenario: Re-living 2005 in 2013

Looks like Airtel’s move to hike the price of its 1GB 2G plan by 25% will soon be aped by other operators. And thus continues the decimation of mobile data (and voice to a lesser extent) in India thanks to policies put in place by various governments of various formulations. We are now in the very unique situation where 3G is too expensive to be used in any reasonable quantities by the masses, so we are now marketing 2G in 2012, which should have been the case in 2005. What a mess.

Due to crazy amounts of money spent on 3G licences, the telcos have no choice but to eke out every possible paisa from the subscribers by hook or by crook. Even at the really expensive prices for 3G data, the telcos won’t recover the money they plonked into the licenses, so reducing the prices is no longer a feasible option for them, even though many attempt to do that by putting in place new plans that have minuscule transfer limits, after which the subscriber is billed at per Kb or per 10 Kb rate, which can easily throw up bills that run into the thousands for the subscriber.

The net result of such adventures is that subscribers get sucked into the trap one large group at a time. Such a scalding puts the subscribers off such services, while the telco balance sheets brighten up a bit for as long as they can keep finding more subscribers to die on the 3G data sword. The data billing process and plans are so convoluted now that we are seeing a new level of innovation in both pricing and products (even though some many alternatively call it dishonest business practices).

Some of the innovations:

  1. Capped high speed 3G connection with an ‘unlimited’ slower connection after the FUP which, for some reason, also puts a billing limit in place.
  2. Cheap volume plans with extremely low validity. Basically, you can’t use all of the data you have paid for within the given time. You’re actually paying more for less, even though it looks otherwise.
  3. 3G connections that bill fallback 2G connections on a per Kb or per 10 Kb basis. There’s no way to track this during normal usage as 3G tower footprint is dicey even within metros.
  4. Airtel also sells 2G plans which reduce in transfer speed after the plan’s limit is reached with ambiguous terms on how they define ‘unlimited’ after that.
  5. It is really hard to use even 1 GB of data in a month on a 2G connection. Most customers I know are underutilizing that data allocation every month. They were already paying more for using less, now they’ll pay even more.

What is even more troubling is that 2G cannot support bulk usage due to limited spectrum, you can already experience this in places that have a high concentration of people using mobile data over 2G in the area covered by the same towers. This is one of those spectacular cases that has failure built into it as a fact.

It is only the government who is capable of altering this terrible state of affairs, but being the party that came out smelling the sweetest of all the involved parties (other two being the telcos and the customers), it will be foolhardy to expect them to alter the course on this front. Which is a real pity as affordable 3G data had the potential to transform our internet penetration scenario. That said, we are in good company in the 3G mess. Over in China, the story is no different with 3G eroding margins for operators, thanks to lousy government policy.

The story, for me, as a consumer is different. I spent the last 3-months of 2012 streamlining my connectivity scenario. I was spending an average of Rs. 4000 per month on data and voice till then and a bit of moving things around has almost halved that amount. I switched to a Rs. 149 per month 2G plan on Airtel (2GB transfer & ‘unlimited’ slow transfer after the cap), changed my plan with a higher upfront payment but a lot of free minutes and messages, picked up a Tata Photon data card with a Rs 5000 for 32GB transfer (validity for a year) plan and stuck to a Rs 1200 plan for home broadband.

Samsung Galaxy S, GT-19000: Two-Year Review

My trusted Android road-warrior — the Galaxy S — completed 2-years sometime late last year. I had picked up the phone as a replacement for my tough-as-nails Nokia E71, long  before the platforms were burning and tablets and mini-tablets had become the rage. To say that the phone has exceeded my expectations would be an accurate statement. As my first touchscreen phone and as my first Andorid phone, I had expected the experience to be ghastly and that the phone would not last for more than a year. I could not have been any more wrong about all that.

The phone is currently running a stock build of Jelly Bean (Android 4.2.1) and other than a deadboot (completely my fault, fixed at a local mobile phone repair shop with a JTAG flash), the device has been flawless. OK, not entirely, I also managed to make the camera unusable after scratching the lens cover pretty badly. In spite of Samsung trying its best to shaft its customers with all the Touchwiz madness and glacially slow firmware updates, this phone will easily continue to go into the pages of history for reasons other than being the phone that started the thermonuclear war with Apple.

Other than being one of the best developer-supported Android handsets, what I love about the phone is how sturdily it is built. It has been dunked in water multiple times, keeps surviving regular falls with unfailing regularity (to the extent that I often ‘demo’ it to friends, eliciting their unparalleled shock) and has withstood my general grubby and clumsy usage. These were the qualities that endeared the Nokias to me a long long time ago and I still retain the E71 (which is fully functional) as one of my backup phones.

I can say with reasonable certainty that come August 2013, I will still be using the phone as long as it keeps going and if it does not get stolen or gets lost. The strange part is that even though the Android ecosystem has changed drastically in the two-years I have had this phone, my desire to switch to a different handset has always been fairly low. It needs to be kept in mind that my smartphone requirements have only regressed over that period. I don’t game at all on the device, there are a few productivity apps and it is used to play music in the car when I drive.

If you take out two important factors — a superb camera and games — Android phones can perform 90% of the functionality (forget NFC for the time being), of the other functions across the board all the way down to Gingerbread. I know this for a fact due to my second phone – Micromax A73. I prefer shooting photos with a proper camera now and don’t use mobile phones for that purpose and I can say that my gaming days are now pretty much behind me. For a while I kept evaluating the Nexus 4, but I just could not convince myself that it was worth the premium I’d have to pay for it.

On the other hand, my regular run-ins with iOS only serves to reaffirm my belief that it is a fine, polished OS and an ecosystem, but it is simply not the right option for me. Having ruled that option out, I am not sure what will be my next smartphone at the higher end of the market.

Is ‘My Airtel’ App A Hint Of Airtel’s Future?

Text message from Airtel prompting me to upgrade to Android ICS from Samsung.
Text message from Airtel prompting me to upgrade to Android ICS from Samsung.

The image on the left is a message I received from Airtel on the 29th of December, 2012, suggesting that I should upgrade to Android 4.0.4 on my Samsung Android device and it says I should visit the Samsung India website to get the process going. This is interesting for a few reasons:

1. The device has not run stock Samsung firmware after 2010 and for a while in 2011. For the past year and a half it has only run various custom ROMs, mostly various builds based on CyanogenMOD.

2. As far as I know, Samsung India does not have my phone number registered with this device. In fact, I am fairly sure that I have not registered for anything with Samsung India regarding the phone. The phone has never seen a Samsung service center.

3. The obvious suspect is Airtel. The device resides on their network and I have the ‘My Airtel‘ app installed on the device, which has permissions to read phone state, identity, network and location details. It is fairly trivial for the app to gather the required details and suggest an upgrade.

4. The lesser suspect is Google. The phone has always been wired to a Google Account and from that point it can access the firmware number, mobile number, location, carrier details etc. But the message originated from the same source that Airtel uses to send other alerts. Unless there is a formal tie-up between Airtel and Google, this will not be possible.

If it can be confirmed that the Airtel app was used to trigger the SMS, it should give us a hint that Airtel is fairly serious about the app. The app is shown to be in the 500,000 installs range by Google Play and it has a decent number of 5-star reviews. If it now triggers firmware upgrade text messages based on the model/manufacturer, it will be another significant move by Airtel to move out of the ‘dumb-pipe’ trap that telcos are desperate to get themselves out of.

What Is A Good Mobile Strategy For India?

As the previous post focused on an overview of the scenario for banking applications for Indian banks on Android, I thought it would be a good idea to have a follow-up post on what is a good mobile strategy for your products. Products built also for Mobile Internet in India goes back a very long way. Rediff had a mobile website in 2000 which was marked up in WML. Those days, more than a mobile phone it was a PDA that was the target device and it was a requirement from a product hygiene that led the well-funded companies down that path.

By 2005 the focus had changed drastically from building WAP-enabled websites to leveraging the SMS-based revenue streams. A lot of money and effort was spent on getting ‘on-deck’ with the operators, which was followed by the era of the short-code. Then came the age of the backend service providers such as July Systems who would transform your data into a mobile-friendly format and handle the presentation of it as a managed service. And now we find ourselves in the app era where content and service apps targetting iOS and Android (Blackberry, Symbian and WP being after thoughts) are being released by companies on a regular basis.

For decision makers in the industry this is a very confusing time since there are multiple strategies that could be deployed:

  1. Only web: Ignore mobile and all facets of it due to cost and operational complexities. There are zero cost workarounds possible if you are on WordPress by using plugins that will accomplish this for you. On custom platforms you can use a mobile-friendly template and hope that it renders decently across most devices, or at least devices that are less than 4-5 years old.
  2. Web + SMS: Considering the mess created by TRAI regarding bulk messaging, this is still an evolving scenario, but it is feasible to have an SMS-based operation with a managed service longer short code for a reasonable amount of money.
  3. Web + SMS + Mobile web: This is (2) augmented with a dedicated mobile website, or a main website that detects a mobile device and serves the right format for pages.
  4. Web + SMS + Mobile Web + app: This is (3) augmented with apps that are built for various mobile platforms.
  5. Web + Mobile Web + app: This is a strategy that seems to be picking up a lot these days, with a variant of Web + app.

There is no hard and fast rule that will help you decide which is the best route to pick. There are significant cost and operational complexities that are involved in adding a new target platform. Even with a managed, outsourced service the support needs to be provided to supply the right data, which is just one part of the entire integration puzzle.

Key Metrics:

  1. Cost: Of deployment, maintenance and growth.
  2. Audience: Size, geography, demographic.
  3. Platform: Size, geography, demographic.
  4. Monetization: Ads, subscriptions (current and projected)

Most operations don’t have a good handle on the four key metrics before they jump into the mobile rabbit hole. Of the available strategies (4) is the most expensive and worst in terms of integration issues. Even though apps are the in-thing to do, the costs for development of an application is quite high and in India you have to support the application on at least three platforms to reach out to a demographic who can be monetized a bit better. The NDTV application in Android Market has about half a million as an install base, but most of that came as a result of the app being featured in the marketplace and installs have fallen off a cliff ever since.

A good rule of thumb to use is to not go with apps for content-only websites, unless you can either support a significantly different/superior user experience or if you have content that is accessible only under a subscription. Non-aggregated content apps always stand the risk of being crowded on in the app screens and eventually decay without repeat usage. It is better to stick to having a mobile-friendly website in this case and only switch to an app if you see the demand for it or you have services that work well with an application. You also have to take into consideration that bandwidth is an issue here, even when it is available over 3G.

Service-oriented businesses are better off with a focus on applications primarily because monetization is already built into most online services. For instance, should a Flipkart decide to eventually support e-books, a fully functional (better than the wrapper around the mobile website approach they currently have) application will allow them to ease into that segment. Same is the case with ticketing services. These businesses also have a greater opportunity in providing unique user experiences around their services compared to content-only players.

For smaller shops, mobile applications are best left alone at the moment. There is simply not enough size/support in the market to justify the cost and effort. It is much easier to clean up the mark-up and have a website that presents a reasonably degraded and functional website to mobile browsers.

Quick Look At Official Indian Banking Apps On Android

The main list of banks to track has been sourced from the BANK-NIFTY and it throws up an interesting set of results

Axis Bank Ltd.
No official Android app, supported in NGpay. There is a Java mobile app for it.
Update (13th, August, 2012. Thanks, Rajashri Ray in the comments): There is an official Android app now: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.csam.axis.activity
Install base: 100,000 – 500,000

Bank of Baroda
Official App: https://market.android.com/details?id=com.fss.bob
Install base: 1,000 – 5,000

Bank of India
No official Android app. There is a Java mobile app for it.

Canara Bank
No official Android app. There is a Java mobile app for it.

HDFC Bank Ltd.
No official Android app, supported in NGpay. There is a Java mobile app for it.

Update (13th, August, 2012. Thanks, Pankaj Batra in the comments): There is an official Android app now:
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.snapwork.hdfc
Install Base: 100,000 – 500,000

ICICI Bank Ltd.
Official App: https://market.android.com/details?id=com.csam.icici.bank.imobile
Install Base: 100,000 – 500,000

IDBI Bank Ltd.
No official Android app. There is a Java mobile app for it.

IndusInd Bank Ltd. 
Official App: https://market.android.com/details?id=com.fss.indus
Install Base: 100 – 500

Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd.
No official Android app. There is a Java mobile app for it.

Punjab National Bank
No official Android app. There is a Java mobile app for it.

State Bank of India
Official App: https://market.android.com/details?id=com.sgs.sbi.mbanking
Install Base: 50,000 – 100,000

Union Bank of India (FSS)
Official App: https://market.android.com/details?id=com.fss.ubi
Install Base: NA

Other Notables:

Citibank India:
Official App: https://market.android.com/details?id=com.citiuat
Install Base: 10,000 – 50,000

Stanchart India
Official App: https://market.android.com/details?id=air.app.scb.breeze.android.main.in.prod
Install Base: 1000-5000

Notes:

  • Interestingly, only five of the twelve banks from the list have official applications on the Android platform.
  • Pretty much every bank on that list has a J2ME app for mobile banking, which makes a lot of sense in a country like ours.
  • Even the banks with Android apps don’t feature it prominently on their websites.
  • Only exception to (3) is ICICI Bank, who are a bit overenthusiastic in promoting iMobile.
  • HDFC Bank is a notable absentee in the list, even though they are supported through NGpay.
  • The apps mostly have the same feature set. Understandable, as the backend service providers tend to be the same few across banks, which makes feature-based differentiation a hard one to pull off.
  • Citibank India and Stanchart India have a reasonable install base.
  • nGpay supports both Axis Bank and HDFC, which should be the cheapest route for banks to integrate with an Android or mobile app.
  • FSS powers the services of Bank of Baroda and Union Bank of India. Looks like they are using a white-label application.
  • SBI’s install numbers are a pleasant surprise. Shows a level of awareness in the market I had, honestly, not expected.
  • Quite revealing that both SBI and the FSS-based apps have a minimum requirement of Android 1.5 and up, while most of the others are 2.x.
  • These numbers can be quite misleading. It is nearly impossible to track the install base of the J2ME apps. So, usage could be a different matter altogether.
  • Install base leader board
    1. ICICI Bank
    2. SBI
    3. NGpay
    4. Citibank India
    5. Bank of Baroda
    6. Stanchart India
    7. Indusind Bank